10 Red Flags of Junk Science (and Bogus Diets)

By , SparkPeople Blogger

One day you hear that a certain food, supplement, or diet is good for you, the next day you hear the opposite. According to survey results shared by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association), one in five people reported being confused by news reports that give dietary advice. Can you blame them?

Most people don't have access to the professional journals that publish these studies, so the average person relies on secondary sources (newspapers, magazines, websites, blogs and other media outlets) that interpret, condense and report on the studies in a more consumer-friendly way. Trouble is, research is hard to interpret. Ten people could look at one study and come away with 10 different takeaways. And even the best reporters and bloggers can get it wrong, especially under tight deadlines or pressure to write an eye-catching story that will sell papers or garner more views.
Mundane news becomes sensationalized to get viewers and readers. Results are often spun to feed the writer's or organization's own interests. And vital details like who funded the research (conflict of interest), how it was designed, or how well controlled it (or not) was often go unmentioned.
But it's important that we all become better consumers of health information—and read any news story with a discerning eye. Because what you read—and believe—based on these reports affects your behaviors, which in turn affect your health.
So the Food and Nutrition Science Alliance (FANSA), a partnership of the ADA, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, and the American Society for Nutritional Sciences and the Institute of Food Technologists, developed the Ten Red Flags of Junk Science to help people recognize nutrition misinformation. Remember these points next time you read the latest news on weight loss or nutrition.
The 10 Red Flags of Junk Science, sourced from FANSA:
  1. Recommendations that promise a quick fix.
  2. Dire warnings of danger from a single product or regimen.
  3. Claims that sound too good to be true.
  4. Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex scientific study.
  5. Recommendations [to change your behavior or diet] based on a single study.
  6. Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations.
  7. Lists of “good” and “bad” foods.
  8. Recommendations made to help sell a product. [HCG injections, anyone?]
  9. Recommendations based on studies published without peer review.
  10. Recommendations from studies that ignore difficulties among individuals or groups.
These days I bring a healthy dose of skepticism with me when I read about any health study—especially when it comes to nutrition or weight loss, and especially if it's trying to promote any kind of product. Nutrition, diet-related and supplement-related studies are by far the hardest to really conduct because you can't really control what people eat or do, and most involve self-reporting, which is known to be full of error and mistakes.
In addition to remembering these red flags, here are a few I'd add:
  1. Consider the source—especially if you stumble upon a web page when Googling for information. Who wrote this information? Are they a credible source? Often trade groups (think the Corn Refiners Association or supplement makers/distributors) create web pages and official sounding "organizations" to try to fool consumers and spread self-serving propaganda. Look for an "about us" on any new website you find to see who is really behind an organization. If there isn't any information about that, beware…

  2. Look for references. Many stories or websites make statements and present them as facts, but fail to disclose the source of that information. Find another outlet that does disclose their references, and don't be afraid to look at those, too.

  3. Find out who funded it. I recently saw a news story that claimed teen girls who eat MORE "low-fat desserts" (i.e. packaged diet desserts) lose more weight than teen girls who eat regular desserts. Big red flags went off in my head on that one, as it seemed like a study designed and/or funded by a snack food manufacturer. When I looked for the fine print, that is exactly what I discovered! Not only did a snack food manufacturer fund the study, they also provided free products to the study participants—major red flags for conflict of interest that certainly affected the outcome and the press releases about the study, no doubt.
The old adage, "You can't believe everything you read," still rings true today, especially in this Internet age. Be smart. Be skeptical. And be discerning about your sources of news. Choose reliable and reputable sources for your health information, and you'll be better informed—and healthier!

More Tips for Consumers
12 Ways to Spot a Fad Diet
How to Get Ripped Off—Guaranteed!
10 Signs a Fitness Gadget is a Gimmick

Do you think these red flags ring true? What are your trusted sources for health information?

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Good need-to-know information, thanks! Report
Great information! Report
Great article. It reminds me of my brief love affair with Agave Nectar. I believed what I found out later was the Agave producers propaganda about this item have a low glycomic index level, when actually it made my blood go through the roof!! I don't do diets any more I just try to eat small to average portions of whole foods, with plenty of greens, high grains, fruits and veggies. I cook fast food during the week from my whole food prep that I either did on the weekend or some other time like watching TV. Report
This is good advice, and for more than just health food claims. I know too many people that believe everything they hear on the TV news, read in a pop culture magazine or get in a chain email, despite lack of reliable sources and scientific proof. Report
Thanks for the great blog...i have been on fad diets, in the past. You may lose weight on them, but these diets aren't and can never be a long term way of eating. They are not healthy, they are boring. We do know that, to lose weight and insure good health, we need to eat healthy, and exercise, each day. Report
Thank you SO much for writing this, Coach Nicole! I teach an undergraduate social science research class and plan to make this required reading! It concisely gets the point made. Report
As a nurse, I always tell my clients to use the web with cautions when it comes to health information....I recommend sites such as WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, National Institutes of Health, as well as legitimate organ/disease organization sites such as American Heart, American Lung, American Diabetes Association, NAMI for mental health, etc. Steer clear of health info from sites selling supplements and miracle answers. Report
What logic tells us and what we actually do for a "quick fix" for obesity may be two different things. In America, we are accustomed to quick fixes. What led me to Spark People was the headliner "Lose 47 pounds by Labor Day". Logic told me that this was impossible, but I still bought the magazine and read the article, which did give reference to weight loss with SP. And, I WIL lose 47 pounds by Labor Day; I am just not certain which year that will be. Report
Aren't the American people gullible? But it is hard to convince them otherwise!!! Report
There are no instant or magic potions for weight loss, it takes time and making behavior modifications in our eating and activity habits. Report
I agree with BRITOMART. Report
The first thing I thought of was the latest "potatoes are evil" nonsense that I keep reading about. Yes, eating potato chips or French fries every day is clearly NOT a good idea. And yes, people with certain health conditions (diabetes, pre-diabetes) need to be extra careful. But these studies try to make people think potatoes are horrible for you and should be avoided at all cost. Potatoes, like just about all foods, can be part of a healthy diet. Report
anything that indicates a diet is a temporary thing you do to lose weight is in contempt of its definition. Diet is whatever we eat bad or good, the idea behind successful weight loss plans is the change in a lifestyle that brings about a permanent change to your daily diet.
Pill diets advertised on TV as working in Clinical trials without having their subjects change anything else about their habits are a joke. AND I'd bet a paycheck once they go off the "miracle pill", that since they learned nothing from the trial about how to eat a proper balanced diet, they gain whatever weight they lost right back. Report
Not quite sure what #2 is about, but otherwise, absolutely I'm on board with this one. Frankly, some of the guest-articles on this site haven't been entirely free from # 4, 7, 8, or 10--nobody's perfect, after all! Report
remember, too, all doctors are not altruistic. Just because a diet/ supplement is recommended by a "doctor" even with MD/ PhD/ DO, etc etc it isn't necessarily safe/ effective/ worth the time/ money! Report
"Quick" and "easy" are dead giveaways to me. Nothing about establishing a healthy lifestyle is either. Report
The word 'diet' is a red flag for me in general. Eat healthier, watch portions and make working out a part of your regular routine. It makes me sad watching friends on diets deprive themselves of things like corn and strawberries since they are on the 'bad list' and lose weight just to gain it back repeatedly. It a sad and unhealthy cycle to see... Report
In general, I think I have a pretty good sense of when something looks too simplistic or too good to be true, and I apply those criteria most often. If I am especially interested, I can access the journals at work and look up the studies myself, and I have the training to read them. I look for things like sample size and method of selection, comparison groups used if any, statistical tests used, and other factors. I also look to see where and when studies were published, authors' credentials, and how old the data were. I don't generally rely on statements about conflict of interest, because I have yet to see one that actually says there was a conflict of interest. Finally, I also know of web sites that I can count on for good information (including but not limited to, Medline, other National Institutes of Health sites, and Harvard Health publications). Report
There is no magic pill. You eat more gain weight, eat healthy, exercise and weight will come off. Report
Eat HEALTHY, eat LESS, exercise. That's all it takes! No magic potions needed. Report
Those are all certainly red flags for me. Whenever a new "diet" comes out, I wait for the reviews from reputable peers. What do places like the Harvard School of Public Health say about it ? What about the Mayo Clinic ? As you mentioned, data can be easily manipulated to suit the needs of the people funding the study. So, I wait for the peer reviews to come out. Anyone can make any claims, but until the data has been verified, the data has to be taken with a grain of salt.

Also, the media is notorious for cherry picking items that make for a good news story. So, I want to see the whole study, not just what the media wants me to see.